TULSA, Oklahoma – A handful of players tried to make runs in the blustery afternoon at Southern Hills, but nobody could catch Rory McIlroy atop the leaderboard at the PGA Championship.
Justin Thomas birdied the difficult 18th hole to shoot 3-under 67 in the afternoon to climb into a tie for fourth place with Abraham Ancer and Matt Kuchar, two shots behind McIlroy’s sterling 65 and a shot back of two other morning rabbits Will Zalatoris and Tom Hoge.
“I'd call any birdie on 18 a steal. It's a hole that you would beginning of the week gladly take four pars on and probably lap the field quite a bit,” said Thomas, the 2017 PGA champion. “To finish the day with a 3 there was a great bonus and a nice end to a solid fight out there.”
Chris Kirk, Mathew Fitzpatrick, Joaquin Niemann and Lucas Herbert each shot late 68s to join Xander Schauffele and Cameron Smith among a cluster of eight players at T7.
Ireland's Shane Lowry (70) and Séamus Power (71) played steadily in the afternoon to keep themselves in the hunt at T27 and T38, respectively, while Pádraig Harrington’s morning 77 leaves him tied 130th in the 156-player major field.
McIlroy’s brilliantly aggressive morning round of 65 proved untouchable. It was his lowest opening round in a major since shooting the same score in the 2011 U.S. Open at Congressional en route to a runaway first major victory.
It is the fourth opening round of 65 or better in a major for McIlroy, whose more recent majors have been characterized by slow starts. The four-time major winner hasn’t won one since claiming the Open Championship and PGA back-to-back in 2014.
McIlroy started hot making four consecutive on holes 12-15 to assume the lead through his first six holes of the day playing in front of large galleries following his marquee grouping with Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth.
“Here it's big wide corridors; I feel like there's a lot of room, so it doesn't feel as oppressive as some other venues,” McIlroy said of the commotion that tends to follow Woods’ groups around. “I was looking forward to the draw anyway. It's always a cool group to be a part of. But I think this golf course just with how it's been opened up, it doesn't feel quite as boisterous as it usually does.”
The afternoon wave got the worst of the draw, with a beaten-up golf course to handle in Thursday’s gusty winds and a forecast for even stronger wind gusts Friday morning before being expected to lay down in the afternoon.
While the setup at Southern Hills has drawn rave reviews, one criticism players have had is with the inconsistency of the bunkers. Harrington, for example, failed to convert seven of his eight appearances in greenside bunkers on Thursday into par saves.
Of course, the bunkers are supposed to be hazards and not safe passage for players to easily handle.
“It's definitely the hardest, most challenging sand I've ever played in just because, first off, it's not very consistent,” Thomas said.
“Some of them have no sand; some of them are good sand, whatever it is. But then when you do it's very pebbly, and sometimes you can kind of get them between the face and the ball and just see them shoot up and offline. I'm sure you've seen from watching the coverage, it's really difficult to get spin; basically impossible.
“Some of those bunkers shots that are generally pretty easy or guaranteed up-and-downs definitely is not the case this week.”
A number of expected contenders put themselves behind the eight-ball chasing McIlroy including Masters champion Scottie Scheffler at 1-over 71 and multiple major winners Collin Morikawa and Spieth at 2-over.
“Definitely got windier as the day went on; the greens get a little bit more chewed up,” said Scheffler. “I missed a short putt I think on 12. Which I really didn't make a terrible stroke on, just kind of hopped off line.
“That's what happens when you play late in the day. Today was windy so the course was challenging, and I didn't keep myself in position on the back nine and paid the price for it.”
Jon Rahm (73), Dustin Johnson (73), Woods (74) and Brooks Koepka (75) all lurk below the projected cut line heading into the second round.
Among the 26 players who broke par on Thursday, the crowd at 1-under 69 includes Patrick Reed, Webb Simpson and Tony Finau.
Zalatoris had a wild ride in the morning to shoot a 66 and join Hoge just a shot behind McIlroy, but it’s a formula he might not find as sustainable as the clinical display McIlroy put on.
“It's super fun whenever you have days like that,” Zalatoris said. “I think I either made four or five 25-footers. It was kind of a bizarre day. I didn't drive it great early and then drove it nicely at the end, but I think all six of my birdies came from the rough today, which is just very bizarre.
“I'm very pleased with today, obviously. Anytime you can put up a 66 in a major, you're obviously happy.”